Archive for the ‘Food’ Category

Decoy Granola

October 10, 2012

I am not a superstitious person. But I am also no fool. So yesterday, when my friend invited me to come for a walk at a time when I was hoping I might receive an exciting phone call, I sent a quick email to the person I was hoping would call me. I told her I was going out, but would keep my cell phone turned up.

But because, as I have said, I am not a fool, I deliberately did not mention the real reason she might have to call. Instead, I offered her, and the Evil Eye, various alternatives. Maybe she would want to share a funny story about her dogs. Or she would need me to help her remember the words to “Ripple” (we’re a pair of old Deadheads). Or she might like my recipe for granola.

Then I drove across town to meet my other friend, which seemed like a much better way to spend the afternoon then sitting at home staring at the phone.

It was a really nice walk. The temperature was just right. The rain held off. My friend and I had a lot to talk about. We saw the mustachioed, identical-twin walkers I had previously only seen around my neighborhood. And I got my phone call.

The call made me very happy. But it was not entirely what I had been hoping for. When I answered the phone, one of the first things my friend said to me was, “Do you have a recipe for granola?”

As it happens, I do. It’s a damned good one, perfected in the course of many months and many batches. And since I can’t say anything about what we actually did discuss in the course of that phone call, I will give you what we did not discuss.

That Granola Recipe

1 part sweetener (such as brown sugar, maple syrup, honey or some combination thereof)

.75 parts oil (I use peanut or olive, since those are the only ones we ever have around)

4 parts rolled oats

seasoning to taste (I use vanilla, salt, black pepper, powdered cinnamon and powdered ginger)

3 parts chopped nuts (I have used walnuts, pecans, cashews, slivered almonds — usually all of the above.)

1 part seeds (flax, sunflower, sesame – again, usually all three. But the sesame are the most essential.)

1 part raisins

1 part other dried fruit, chopped (I like figs and dates. More figs in the mix than dates)

— Preheat the oven to 325 degrees, and line a rimmed baking sheet with parchment paper.

–Combine the oats with the sweetener, oil and seasoning. Spread it evenly on the baking sheet and bake 30 minutes, stirring once.

–Add the nuts and seeds to the oat mixture and bake another 15 minutes. Be careful not to burn the nuts.

–Remove from the oven and add fruit when cool.

I store mine in the refrigerator, so the nuts and the oil don’t go rancid. In mason jars, because they’re pretty.

I love this granola because it’s not too sweet and it’s full of goodies. The sesame seeds provide a slightly bitter counterpoint to the sugary parts, and the black pepper gives it a subtle kick. I eat it with plain yogurt and jam or fresh fruit for breakfast, or straight from the jar, as a snack.

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Just Desserts

June 22, 2012

Matzah crunch with toasted almonds and coarse salt

A friend left a message on our phone the other day. She said she was in New York City, and wouldn’t have access to her email. So if I got any good news about my book in the next 24 hours, I should call her, rather than email. Why? She wants to celebrate my good fortune by eating lots of desserts, and New York City is a great place to indulge a sweet tooth.

Black Flower Chocolates, Vermont

The online magazine Tablet recently ran a piece about the Hebrew word firgun. Never heard of it? Neither had I. According to the article, firgun is ungrudging happiness at another person’s good fortune. The author describes the sentiment in purely positive terms, as an ideal most of us can only strive to achieve. (A reader commenting on the story takes a more jaundiced view, calling firgun the opposite of  schadenfreude. It’s the refusal to judge the good luck of those who don’t deserve it, the commentator suggests.)

Moroccan treats

Do I think my friend wants to hear about my success out of pure firgun? Of course not. Sure, she’ll be happy for me. But she also craves, for example, a certain seven-layered cake, some particular donuts, those big almond cookies the Jews call Chinese and the Chinese call Jewish, you know, the ones with a nice dab of chocolate in the middle? She wants an excuse to feed her passion. And that’s fine by me. I wish I could have given her that excuse while she was in the city. But it didn’t work out that way.

Valentine’s Day truffles

As I wait, do I have firgun for other writers’ success? Not really. But I do take comfort in the thought that if it happened for them, it can happen for me. When it does, I’ll be sure to let my friend know. And after I have my own celebration, I’ll enjoy hearing about all the decadent delights she consumed in my honor. We’ll both have our cake and eat it, too.

Mille feuille

The Other Red Meat

June 3, 2012

Do you eat meat? All meat, or just kosher? Halal? If just kosher or halal, are you strict about slaughtering, or do you just avoid certain species? Do you avoid red meat? Non-organic meat? Sad meat, from animals that were factory farmed? If you don’t eat meat, what about fish? Would that be all fish, or just wild-caught? What about bottom feeders? If you don’t eat meat or fish, what about eggs and dairy? Honey? What’s your position on wheat? Tree nuts? Peanuts? MSG?

Are your food taboos based on religion? If so, which flavor? Is it ethics you care about? Meaning cruelty? The environment? Labor policy? Localism? Is it your health? And if so,  are you worried about weight? Allergies? Something else? Or are your dietary decisions more of a gut thing? Maybe you just don’t like peas.

It’s complicated, this business of eating. And even after you’ve gotten your food rules worked out, new information or questions might force you to rethink your rubric. (Pigs aren’t as smart as you think. Sea bass are endangered. If road kill is fresh and healthy, isn’t it wrong not to eat it?)

My own food outlook has been evolving. When dinner hosts ask my husband David and me what we eat, our standard answer is “everything.” But that’s not really true anymore. Because we’re concerned about cruelty, we try to eat meat only from animals that have been raised humanely. We eat fish (fin- and shell-) because we figure they’re equally happy whether they live in the wild or in fish farms, but we avoid over-fished species, out of environmental concerns. For health reasons, I try to go light on the fat, and favor whole grains over white. I also generally steer clear of ice cream and other dairy products, for reasons I won’t go into.

That’s how we eat at home and in restaurants. When people have us over, however, we just say we eat “everything,” because we don’t want to be a bother to our hosts. But I’m beginning to think it might be time to change our public eating status.

The question came up last week, when we were at a philosophy conference in the Lofoten Islands, in Norway’s far north. The conference was held at a “base camp” of cottages with an associated restaurant, where most attendees ate three meals a day.

Breakfast was available for several hours, and served buffet-style – the default arrangement at Scandinavian hotels, where the morning meal is standardly included in the price of the room. The basic menu includes breads, cheese, cold meats, fish and vegetables, as well as fruit, nuts, cereal and yogurt, boiled eggs, some sort of sweet pastry, and maybe, for the tourists, scrambled eggs and sausages on a steam table. Cushier lodgings mean classier rations. At the conference hotel, the cheeses were scrumptious, the smoked salmon luxe, and tiny croissants dusted with lightly caramelized sugar to die for. The range of options, and the help-yourself set-up, was ideal for people who want stay in charge of what they consume.

Lunches and dinners were a different matter. The thirty or so philosophers and their guests all sat down at the same time, at two long tables. When everyone was settled, the server called us to attention with the tap of a spoon on a glass, and announced the menu. “For dinner tonight you will have stockfish in pastry, followed by halibut with leek puree and roasted potatoes, and for dessert you will have panna cotta with blueberry coulis.”

Fish dominated the menus, which was just fine with me. And substitute dishes were available for those philosophers who had registered their dietary desiderata in advance. Several ate fish, but not meat. Others were pure vegetarians. At least two others were vegans; at the chef’s request, they had sent ahead links to websites with appropriate recipes. One philosopher ate meat, but not fish or wheat. In the parlance of our English-speaking Norwegian servers, fish-eaters were “vegetarians,” and anyone on a more restricted diet “vegan.” The simplified terminology worked well enough until the second night.

The server stood before us and tapped a glass with a spoon. “I will announce tonight’s menu,” she told us, quite happily. “You will start with a whale carpaccio served with cream cheese, watercress and beet puree.”

Cue the gasps and murmurs. (“Hang on a sec. Did she say whale?”)

“But what if we don’t want to eat whale?” someone asked.

“Those who do not want whale will have salmon,” the server smartly replied.

More murmurs. “I won’t eat whale,” someone called out. “Me neither,” said someone else, amid the general clamor. The server – a slight woman, about the age of the undergraduates the philosophers taught back home, managed to get our attention.

“Who will not eat whale?” she asked. Hands shot up all over the room. “We have seven servings of salmon,” she added.

More murmurs.

“But what if more than seven people want the salmon?”

“The salmon is only for the vegetarians.”

“Pescaterians,” someone corrected her.

“If you are a vegetarian you want salmon,” the server said firmly. “If you are not a vegetarian or a vegan, you want whale.”

Clearly, we were having a communication problem. But what was getting lost in translation wasn’t the nuances of vegetarianism and veganism, but the meaning of want.

As the servers went off to fetch our plates, we did some quick calculations. Whale are way smarter than fish, but it’s hard to imagine another animal with a more free-range existence. Aren’t they endangered, though? I thought of the great sperm whale, hunted nearly to extinction. Whales’ majestic size. The awesome distances they travel. The grace with which they propel their huge bodies through the water. The romance of their songs – of singing through water. The sweetness of their calves. Rafi, “Baby Baluga,” and the days when our children were babies. It was like asking us to eat Barney, the big purple dinosaur.

I stacked all of that up against the fact that the whale had already been purchased, prepared and plated. It seemed unlikely that refusing it would make much of an impact. And weren’t we always saying it was important to be good guests?

We were visitors in someone else’s home – a country where intelligent, ethical people eat not only whale, but reindeer. Also sheep’s head, boiled whole and served with mashed rutabagas. For Christmas. If we were in Korea, the dish du jour could be dog. And where is it, Indonesia? Where they eat the brains of live monkeys? A friend of ours who once traveled to somewhere in Africa representing a nonprofit claimed to have been honored at a feast where she was served live insects. “I could feel their legs wiggling as they went down my throat,” she said. What are the limits of accepting hospitality?

“The whales that are eaten here are not endangered,” the one Norwegian philosopher at our table assured us. “There are strict rules about how they’re caught and killed. Policemen go out on the boats to make sure everything is done right. The way they are killed is much less cruel than the way factory farmed pigs, for example, are slaughtered. And I have seen no convincing studies proving that they are more intelligent than other species, such as pigs.”

Our plates arrived. And reader, we ate it. The meat was deep red and delicious — dense, clean and meaty like grass-fed beef, but richer on the tongue, and when you sank you teeth into it, a soft, silky texture.

If you’re going to challenge your dietary principles, it might as well taste good.

Big Grandma’s Chicken Soup

April 3, 2012

Passover prep is well underway at my house. Last weekend I got the chicken soup and matzoh balls made. I used Big Grandma’s recipe, as recorded by my mother in Cooking Is My Bag, a fundraiser cookbook put out by the Montclair Education Association, I’m guessing in the late 1970s.

Big Grandma (may her memory be for a blessing) was (among many other things) my mother’s mother, an ace fundraiser for United Jewish Appeal, a fiercely competitive Scrabble player, a skilled knitter and needle-pointer, a Canadian Club drinker, an opera listener, a staunch supporter of and frequent flyer to Israel, and our family’s official soup maker.

She was famous for two soups: mushroom barley with beef, and chicken with matzoh balls. She brought them to our home frozen in quart-sized containers weeks before whatever holiday they were meant for. Serving the soup meant setting the container in a saucepan half filled with water and gently heating it until the soup was melted enough to slip out of the container, and then getting it nice and hot. Once I was living too far from New Jersey to come home for Passover, I found out that making chicken soup with matzoh balls is more difficult than just waiting for your grandmother to drive up the Garden State Parkway with her vats of frozen soup.

But it’s not that difficult. Mostly, it just takes some advance planning, because doing it right takes three days. Here’s how I did it this year.

Day one: Make soup!

Quarter your whole chicken. (B.G. didn’t keep kosher, but she did demand a kosher pullet for her soup. I don’t keep kosher, either, but I do try to eat only the meat of animals I believe have been raised humanely. This year’s soup chicken scored a 5 – the highest grade — on Whole Foods’ animal treating ratings.)

Throw the chicken parts into your soup pot, along with three large onions, four or five celery stalks, and two or three large carrots. (I also add a bunch of whole garlic cloves. And this year, a parsnip. Don’t tell B.G.)

Add four quarts of water and bring to a boil. (B.G. says to then skim any accumulated “fluff.” This makes the final broth beautifully clear. But it’s also a pain in the neck, especially when the chicken and vegetables are bobbing up over the top of the water. I used to spend a lot of time and effort trying to accomplish this step. Now I ignore it. No one has ever complained.)

Simmer, covered, for 90 minutes. (I think B.G. cracked the pot lid. I used to, but no longer bother.)

At this point, this year, I added a bouquet of parsley, as recommended by Big Grandma’s brother-in-law, Uncle Moley. I also seasoned with salt and pepper.

Simmer another 30 minutes.

Remove the carrots and chicken parts, and strain the rest.

Cut the carrots into coins and return them to the soup. (Uncle Moley also returns the chicken to the soup. B.G. and I reserve it for other uses, such as chicken salad and chicken tertrazini, one of my grandmother’s favorites.)

Cool the soup in the fridge overnight.

Day two: Skim, mix and chill

Skim the fat from the top of the soup. (This soup fat isn’t exactly the same as schmaltz you make by rendering chicken fat with onion. But it works just as well for matzoh balls, and it’s a lot more convenient.)

Make your matzah ball batter by creaming the soup fat and combining it with beaten eggs, matzah meal, and salt and pepper to taste. Amounts: 3 TBS fat to 3 eggs to 3/4 cup matzah meal.

Cover and let sit in the fridge overnight.

If you’re freezing the soup for later, you can do that now.

Day three: Make matzoh balls!

Get a big pot of salted water boiling while you set up your matzah-ball-making station. (The recipe in the Montclair Education Association cookbook doesn’t include this part. It’s the secret to success B.G. shared with me when she found out I was planning to actually use the recipe she had so casually dictated to my mother. I felt privileged that she’d given me this extra wisdom. Especially since years earlier, when I asked her to teach me to knit, she’d gotten disgusted with my ineptitude and given up almost immediately.)

To make your matzoh balls B.G.’s secret way, you’ll need the batter you’ve had sitting overnight, a bowl of warm water wide enough to wet your palms, a towel to dry your fingertips.

To form smooth, round matzoh balls, dig walnut-sized bits from the batter with your dry finger tips, and roll them between your wet palms. Keeping your finger tips to be dry prevents the batter from becoming soggy, and keeping your palms wet helps the balls slide around without sticking, so you can form a lovely sphere.

Drop the balls into the water and let them boil, uncovered, for 30 minutes.

Remove them with a slotted spoon. Let them drain and cool. Then you can freeze them. (I used to freeze the balls in the soup, but they tended to fall apart as the soup thawed.)

That’s it. Do it right, and the result will be a broth that’s rich in taste, just slightly sweet, and not at all greasy, and matzoh balls that are flavorful, firm enough to stand up to a spoon, soft enough to melt in your mouth, and not at all heavy. Plan on offering seconds.

Happy Passover!

What’s that smell?

August 15, 2011

It started with this musty smell in the kitchen. We first noticed it earlier this summer. It was worst on humid days, and strongest near the trash bin. Taking the trash out didn’t help, and neither did scrubbing the plastic bin, itself. So yesterday we (well, David) removed the wooden frame that slides the bin under the counter, and all the other drawers in that cabinet.

When we shined a flashlight into opening, we found some very, very dirty floorboards. But no dead mouse or decomposing peach. (I should probably mention that we have an old kitchen. We think the last time it was updated was 30 years ago. The bead board  and most of the drawers and cabinetsdate back to around 1900, when the house was built.)

We (well, David) scrubbed the floorboards with a bleach mixture, and then with a wood cleaner. The rinse water came up just as filthy each time, but after several go-overs we (well, David) decided enough was enough. We’re keeping our fingers crossed.

My real point, though, is those drawers. Having them sitting out in the open gave us a chance to really look inside them – something we haven’t done since we moved in, four years ago. The silverware and food wraps and dish towels each have their own space, and that makes sense. But three other drawers hold our over-stock of spices – jars and boxes and bags that don’t fit in our go-to cabinet beside the stove.

“Maybe this would be a good time to do some weeding,” David suggested, and I reluctantly agreed. And oh, what we found.

–The last teaspoon of herbes de Provence from our South of France vacation in 2006.

–A vanilla bean from the house in Rochester David’s parents sold that same year.

–The lifetime supply of dried chiles given to David by my mother, who in February, 1999.

–A  jam jar filled with black salt, an ingredient used in Indian cooking, though in none of the recipes we ever make.

–A  jar of chervil from which all scent expired years ago. Ditto a jar of green peppercorns.

–The same plastic container of garam masala David and his parents used to secretly plant in each other’s possessions – a game no one has played in at least five years.

I could go on, but you get the idea. We threw some stuff away, though probably not nearly as much as we should have. The whole exercise reminded me – a little too much – of a scene from LITTLE GRANDMA’S MIRROR, the novel my agent is currently shopping. Adam’s mother has died, and he’s hired Kitty Klein, a professional estate liquidator, to help him dispose of the family home.

_______________________

Kitty Klein wears a fancy gray hat and shiny black boots that hug her calves like ballroom gloves. Her long red fingernails make it all the more unbelievable when, after her I’m-sorry-we-couldn’t-meet-under-happier-circumstances handshake and before Adam finally manages to jimmy open the door he has never before had any trouble opening, she announces, “I’m a roll-up-the-sleeves gal. Do everything myself. If you want something done right, you know what I’m saying?”

Inside the kitchen, she pulls a notebook and a pen from her suitcase-sized handbag and starts opening cabinets and drawers and stirring through the unopened mail. “Your mother was sentimental, wasn’t she?” She says delicately extracts from the paper slush a laminated name tag Mouse wore at a convention she attended sometime in the nineties. “A keeper.”  Kitty’s nose twitches. She sets the name tag back down as if it were some frail archeological shard. “They’re the hardest.”

“The hardest in terms of what?” Adam asks, helplessly tracking her tight-lipped inspection of the aluminum-foil pans amassed against Armageddon, the expired spices in their dusty bottles, the ten-year archive of handwritten holiday menus hanging beside the stove from a grease-encrusted string.

“Letting go.” She writes something down on her pad, then taps her perfect white teeth with her pen. “The kitchen definitely has potential.”

“For what?”

“To be something really special. A little paint. New appliances. Reface the cabinets. But the buyer would have to have some imagination.”

________

Adam and Kitty are products of my imagination, but the kitchen is definitely my mother’s – which sometimes smelled a little musty, too. Some things just linger, no matter how much you scrub.

Suck-o-tash

August 3, 2011

I have never been a fan of the lima bean. Their grainy texture and slightly metallic flavor have always struck me as, well, gross. When I was a kid, vegetables were a mandatory part of every supper, and lima beans were in the regular rotation, along with spinach, broccoli, string beans, cauliflower and peas (with or without accompanying cubes of wan carrot)  — all frozen into uniform bricks that could easily be stacked in the freezer door. Sometimes my mother served the lima beans alone, but, as I remember it, they usually appeared on the dinner plate combined with corn, as succotash.

Succotash. Could any food word be less appetizing? In a story I wrote many years ago, a bratty teenager pushes the stuff back and forth on her plate for a while before saying to her mother, “Suck-o-tash.” Her father sends her to her room.

Now that I’m all grown up, I pride myself on my adventurous eating. Hot peppers? Bring ‘em on. Chicken feet? No problem. Duck penis tongue? Um, okay.

So when I saw fresh lima beans at the supermarket this morning, I figured it was time to give them another try. They looked so lovely in their pods. And they were so fresh! If they had any hope of tasting good, this was their chance. I circled back and picked up an ear of corn. Today was the day I would take the suck out of the ‘tash.

I popped the beans from their pods and steamed them for about five minutes, until they were fork tender. Meanwhile, in a separate pan, I brought half an inch of water to a boil under the shucked corn, and then turned the burner off and let it sit. When both veggies were ready, I shaved the kernels from the cob, combined them with the drained lima beans, and added plenty of butter, salt and pepper.

The corn was great, but the beans tasted terrible. They were this awful chewy texture, and this really ugly gray – closer to the frozen atrocities of my childhood than the happy green legumes I’d envisioned. Looking more closely, I noticed that the surface of the beans was wrinkled and loose. D’oh! Lima beans have a tough skin that has to be removed, like fava beans.

Within a few minutes, my fingers were greasy with butter and salt, a pile of empty skins was mounded beside the pot, and the lima beans were silky smooth and a satisfying deep green. I grabbed my fork and dug in. Still sorta meh.

Undeterred, I mixed through some chopped scallions, squeezed on half a lime, and threw in a handful of cherry tomatoes from my backyard. Then I plated the concoction, poured myself a glass of wine, and took my dinner out to the porch.

The succotash was very pretty, with the delicate corn and the bright tomatoes and the deep green beans. The corn was sweet and the tomato was tart. As for the beans, they were silky. And, when I isolated them from the rest of the ingredients and really concentrated on the taste, they were actually kind of gross, in an unpleasant, metallic way. Just like the lima beans I remember.

Little Grandma’s Chremslach

April 19, 2011

The traditional Passover greeting is to wish someone a “Zissen Pesach” – a sweet Passover. The phrase is probably meant as a reference to the sweetness of liberation, the holiday’s central theme. But it could just as well describe the flavors of the seder. Besides the spicy bite of the “bitter herb” and the blandness of the matzo, there’s an awful lot of sweet stuff on the menu, from fruity charoset and Manischewitz wine to honeyed tzimmes and all manner of desserts. In my house there’s also the chremsls.

Chremsls as I have always known them are golden matzo fritters fried in oil and soaked in hot honey. Dense and greasy and starchy, they ooze dark sweetness when you bite into them. My mother made them from a recipe she got from her mother-in-law, our Little Grandma, and served them as an entrée side dish, alongside the brisket and the asparagus. When I started hosting my own seders, she gave me the recipe. I’ve been serving them ever since.

For years it seemed that no one outside our family had ever even heard of them. Now I learn that the proper Yiddish plural isn’t chremsls, but chremslach. Most sources say they’re eaten for breakfast or dessert. But I found one that uses the word chremslach for mashed potatoes stuffed with meat and fried. A cottage cheese version is touted as an easier, Passover-appropriate variation on blintzes.

In The Book of Jewish Food, Claudia Roden offers an Alsatian version that includes brandy, salt, sugar and cinnamon as well as raisins and chopped almonds.

Joan Nathan says she has never had a seder without chremslach (or “grimslech,” as she says it can also be spelled). Her family recipe is included in her Jewish Cooking in America. The matzo meal fritter are stuffed with currants, almonds and apricots and served with prunes stewed in orange juice, or a wine sauce.

Little Grandma’s chremsls don’t include any fruit or nuts. They’re made with actual matzo that’s been soaked, drained and crushed, rather than matzo meal. David has never liked them but the kids love them as much as I do. One memorable year, when Sam was about six, his friend Alex was eating over, and I served leftover chremsls. Alex couldn’t get enough of them. It wasn’t until later, when he was telling Sam how much he’d enjoyed the meal, that we realized he thought he was eating chicken.

Here’s my recipe:

Beat and season with salt and pepper

1 egg for each person

Moisten with hot water and drain

1 matzo for each egg

Crush the matzos into the egg and mix

Add to the egg/matzo mixture

about 1 tsp matzo meal for each matzo, or enough to bind the batter.*

(*Less is better. Too much turns your finished chremsls in to hockey pucks.)

Heat in a wide pan

peanut oil, maybe 1/2 inch deep

Meanwhile, start heating in a deep pan

honey, maybe 2 cups

When oil begins to sizzle, form the batter into 2-inch diameter patties and fry them in the oil, turning once.

When chremsls are golden on both side, drop them into the hot honey turning them over a few times as they soak up the honey.

You’ll probably have to work in stages, adding more patties to the oil as room permits, and making room for newly fried chremls in the hot honey by removing them to your serving platter (or the baking sheet on which you will reheat them, if you need to make them in advance).

But now that I think about it, maybe my mother just kept adding more and fried chremsls to the hot honey and removed them all at once, so some ended up soaking much longer than any of mine do. Maybe that’s why my version of Little Grandma’s chremsls are never as dark and sweet as I remember my mother’s being. Or maybe that’s not the reason.

You Are What You Meat

November 23, 2010

Cows grazing at Pat's Pastured farm

When my son was six, I helped chaperone his class’s pre-Thanksgiving field trip to a turkey farm In Williston, Vermont. The trip didn’t turn out quite the way his teacher had hoped. The birds were crowded wattle to wing in an indoor pen, shuffling and shuddering, the cacophony of their collective gobbling loud and alarming. It came in waves. It was clear the birds were upset and setting each other off. Many of their normally red wattles were blue – a sign of anxiety, the farmer calmly explained. His baseball cap had a picture of a hand giving a one-finger salute. It was easy to imagine that the birds’ distress was directly related to his plans for their near future. But it’s more likely they were upset by the presence of 30 jostling, noisy first-graders.

It’s enough to make me never eat meat again, I thought as we hurried the kids out of there. Except it wasn’t. Just a few days later I sat down to Thanksgiving dinner with the rest of my family and blithely tucked into my turkey. And I have continued to tuck into turkeys – and chickens and lambs and cows and pigs.

But maybe not as blithely.

We used to serve it for dinner seven nights a week and buy any cut that looked good and was affordable. First we stopped eating veal, and then we started searching out other meats from animals that had been raised humanely. At the time we were still living in Vermont, where our neighborhood grocer carried lots of stuff from local suppliers touting free range/organic/fair trade/sustainable/heirloom/insert-your-pc-food-catchword credentials. So finding foods that assuaged our consciences was easy.

Less easy was paying for them, which meant we ate meat less often. Which I considered a good thing.

Then we moved to Rhode Island. Three years ago, when we arrived, there were two Whole Foods stores within a fifteen-minute drive of our house. Today there are three, plus a Trader Joe’s. These national chains pedal lots of groceries with groovy credentials. But kind treatment of livestock isn’t among them.

Not surprisingly, Rhode Island also doesn’t have nearly as many farms as Vermont. But the number is growing (in fact, last year Rhode Island’s farm roster has grown more quickly than 48 other states’). And in the short time we’ve been here, there has also been a boom in farmer’s markets.

We like knowing how our meat was raised and buying it directly from the folks who raised it. But market schedules don’t always jive with ours. And even without the middleman, purchasing happy meat retail is still pricey.

This fall, we faced a choice. I leaned towards going meatless – or nearly meatless. David proposed a different approach: buy a freezer chest and find a happy-meat farmer to fill it.

Now I’ve got a freezer in my basement filled with 100 pounds of dead cow. It’s happy dead cow. Or at least, it lived a happy life. Assuming happiness for a cow comes from spending its days grazing on grass in a Vermont pasture. I picked the meat up last week – three cardboard boxes – from a woman in Coventry, Rhode Island, who’d picked it up the day before from Corinth, Vermont, where she owns a farm and rents it to tenants who raise, slaughter and butcher angus cows.

On Sunday David and I drove to Jamestown, Rhode Island, to pick up our Thanksgiving turkey. It’s a happy Thanksgiving turkey. Or at least, it lived a happy life. Assuming happiness for a turkey comes from spending its days pecking at bugs in an open pasture on a narrow strip of land with Narragansett Bay sparkling to the east and the west.

Would it be better not to eat animals at all? Probably. But this is where we are this year. And when I sit down to our turkey dinner on Thursday, I’ll know the turkey I’m tucking into didn’t spend its days wattle to wing in a hysterical mob. That’s something to be thankful for.

My First Pig Roast

July 11, 2010

Every year my sister-in-law Sarah throws a giant pig roast at her home in Colorado Springs. This year David and I attended for the first time.

On Thursday we drove with Sarah to Castle Rock to pick up the pig. It weighed 108 pounds, and was wheeled out to the car in a long, cardboard box that looked like it ought to be draped in an American flag. Instead, we pulled a plastic bag around it, because juices were dripping out of one corner of the box. Once the pig was safely stashed in the back of the Subaru, we returned to Colorado Springs, where we dropped the box off at Front Range Bar-B-Q.

On Saturday afternoon, the Front Range Bar-B-Q guy parked his smoker in front of Sarah’s house. The smoker looks like an old-fashioned train engine. The pig was laid out with an orange in its mouth and pepper slices over its eyes. Its snout was hairy and its skin was glistening. It had already been smoking for several hours. Sarah had asked the Front Range people to finish the cooking in front of her house because she wanted to smell of the smoke to fill the air.

In the Torah, the fragrant smoke of grilling meat is the essence of the sacrifices at the Temple. When the pleasing aroma rises to God, the offering is accepted. Of course the animal being sacrificed at the Torah isn’t a pig. And as far as I know, the text makes no mention of oranges in the animal’s mouth or pepper slices over its eyes. After the smoke has risen to God, the pilgrims and their friends feast on the flesh. That’s what happened at the pig roast.

Coolers were filled with beer and soda. Two guitar-strumming singers from Manitou Springs played folksy covers. Guests brought sides of hummus, green-bean casserole, artichoke dip, pasta salad, silky-smooth collard greens. Counting the babies, there were about 70 people altogether. The pig was brought in from the smoker and laid out on the table, where we could watch it being sliced as we loaded our plates with meat and and topped it with sauce.

The sight of the pig laid out like that turned my stomach. But I’m not a vegetarian and I don’t keep kosher, so I helped myself to a little of the meat and spooned over some of the sauce. I think it tasted pretty good. But I didn’t really taste it. I couldn’t get the sight of that pig out of my head.

There are lots of reasons for not eating animals: human health, animal cruelty, environmental sustainability. I find them all compelling – but not as convincing as the deliciousness of a good lamb curry. The laws of kashrut present dietary restrictions as God’s commandment. I don’t believe in a god who commands, and love the salty bite of bacon – but I’m Jewish enough to feel guilty when I eat it. And I suspect that I would have been less put off if that pig had been a goat or a lamb.

Or maybe not. The way that pig was displayed, with everyone talking and laughing around it felt – what? Disrespectful, I guess. It was as if we were saying, “Ha ha, joke’s on you. You’re dead and we’re having a party.”

And if the specific strictures of kashrut strike me as arbitrary, its more general encouragement of eating awareness resonates deeply. I like the idea of taking the physical instinct to feed your face and turning it into an act of devotion. You don’t need to believe in God to see the point of slowing down, considering what it is you’re putting in your mouth, and remembering that your life depends on it.

I believe that if a person is going to eat animals, she should be willing to face up to what she’s doing. Someone who can’t stomach a slaughterhouse tour has no business eating what comes out of it. I’m pretty sure I could be sickened by such a visit. But I haven’t been to one yet.

The night after the roast I had trouble sleeping. As I lay awake, I wondered if come morning I would finally take the plunge and tell David I was giving up meat.

I didn’t. Today at lunch, I passed up the leftover pork in favor of chicken. Then I dug in with gusto, picking the bones clean and gnawing the cartilage. Surveying the remains on my plate, I realized what I had done. I forced myself to imagine the living creature I’d just consumed. But the thought was too unpleasant. I quickly set it aside and told myself, maybe tomorrow.